Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Cry from Iran

There's an assumption some people have that non-Western peoples aren't truly interested in democracy. This is a widespread belief of the Arab and Muslim states. But, in truth, most of the residents of these places would welcome democratic reforms, but there are two challenges: dictators allied with western powers, and religious opposition. But, even this opposition must be considered in context. Islam is not antithetical to democracy: in many ways it is very democratic, holding political leaders subject to the same religious laws as commoners, but there are 'trappings' of democracy that are problematic. An open democracy, for example, means more western influence on fashion and food, and more diverse books and magazines for sale.

We think of democracy as putting a ballot in the box every few years. People in the Middle East look at democracy and they see a bigger picture. Yes, it’s putting a ballot in a box. But it’s also giving rights to women, rights for children to marry whom they want, when they want. The freedom to be secular. The right to have free speech. They look at democracy and they see a civilization that has lost many of its family values, consumed by drugs and alcohol, full of sexual promiscuity. They don’t want that. I don't blame them.

Iran is interesting. Iranians have good reasons to distrust the West. So do I. But, that's a separate issue from seeking democracy; the problem is that in much of the world, especially the Middle East, any form of democratization is seen as Americanization. Western countries who advocate democracy then are perceived as 'colonizers' whose goal is to blanket American hegemony over the region. And because some aspects of democracy are problematic (ie: sexual freedom), there is a tendency to reject the whole, rather than seek, for example, a uniquely Islamic form of democracy. There is also a tendency across the region to blame others (Arabs, in particular, believe conspiracy theories well above normal levels) rather than self-criticize and self-correct.

Iran's Persian populace is different. Iran has a young population that is well-educated, essentially western in attitude, and which has privately expressed disapproval of the country's Islamist President and clerical rulers. The problem has been that this group has seemed more interested in skiing and doing drugs than overthrowing a radical government. Let's be fair: this is a problem that is prevalent in the Middle East and endemic, I think, to Islam. By definition, Islam means submission. It's contrary to Islam to defy religious and familial authority figures. This is still, in many ways, a tribal culture. As long as young Iranians have been unwilling to rise against their parents and Imams, nothing has changed.

Today's reaction to allegations of voter fraud might be the beginning of a democratic revolution in Iran, or not. Revolutions, like forest fires, often start small and smolder for awhile before the big conflagration. But, these revolutionaries face the ultimate foe: Iran's leaders were themselves the revolutionaries of a previous generation. They can anticipate the strategies and actions of the protesters and prevent the spread of anti-government riots. They've already cut cell-phone service and blocked access to social media sites like Twitter. There are reports that police have arrested opposition leaders. Foreign media have reported that they're being prevented from covering the protests.

Furthermore, it will take more than a few riots to bring down this government; it will require the involvement of the military and police, and a willingness to fight and die for reform. And even a change in Presidents will only bring about small change. Regardless of who really won this election, the real power still lies with 'the Mullah behind the curtain', Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Iranians will not know democracy until his absolute authority is expunged.

Has the revolution begun? We can only hope. The fall of Iran's fascist, Islamic government would have positive repercussions across the region. At the very least, it could prevent a conflict between Iran and Israel.

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